Saddle Brook township council voted Thursday to end a decades-old practice that entitled elected officials and part-time or appointed township professionals to receive health benefits.
The vote was prompted by a group of residents who for months have hotly contested the council's right to take benefits and whose successful petition opposing health benefit entitlements forced the governing body to either put the issue up for a binding public vote in November or enact legislation to end benefits itself.
Council went the latter route -- choosing to adopt two ordinances proposed by the resident group that sought to eliminate benefits for elected and appointed officials, and lifetime benefits for elected and appointed officials who had served the township for 20-plus years -- but not before making slight amendments to the group's ordinances.
The amended ordinances, unanimously approved by council, specified that the law applied only to officials hired or elected after Jan. 1, 2011, meaning that all of the current council members would be grandfathered in and not required to give up their benefits.
The move angered resident petitioners who felt council members amended the ordinances to intentionally avert the public's will and retain benefits for themselves.
"Every single one of you up there proved to the entire township tonight you were up there for nothing more than the benefits," said resident Sylvia Zottarelli, who threatened to petition for a recall of council members.
Councilman Anthony Cimiluca, who presided over Thursday's meeting in the absence of Council President Anthony Halko, defended the amendments, saying they accomplished two important points.
"It heard the people that said they were not happy with the council getting benefits, and we understand that," Cimiluca said. "But also, in fairness, it did not take away benefits that were provided in the past and may have led to litigation."
Approving the original petitoned ordinances would have invited litigation, explained Raymond Wiss, the township's special labor counsel, because they did not specify an effective date after which benefits would be eliminated.
"There are individuals who have already met the length of service requirements for being eligible for [lifetime] benefits and who are receiving those benefits," he said. "So right now we have a class of individuals who may well be deemed vested, in that they are receiving those benefits, who would be divested unless there was an effective date in the ordinance."
Wiss also said the township's lack of an ordinance on the books that entitled council members to health benefits did not pose a legal problem, as some residents have vehemently argued.
"As a matter of best practice, yes, we all wish it were in writing," he said. "As a matter of whether it is legal or not, the absence of an ordinance or written policy does not render the payment of benefits to be illegal."
Wiss concluded that the council's amendments were both appropriate and permissible because they proved consistent with the historic practice of the township and removed the possibility that any contractual or vested rights litigation might be provoked.
"I think we’ve got a balance between the sentiment expressed in the petition and the protection of legal rights," he said.
Larry Ratajczak, one of the leaders of the original petition effort, said he'd be starting another petition to recall the mayor and council members.
"What other recourse do we have?" he said. "That’s the only way we’re going to fight city hall. We're trying, but they always find a way to wiggle out."
Ratajczak added, however, that he would have no objection to the mayor and council members receiving benefits if the rest of the town were operating smoothly.
"If there were no money issues or no financial issues and we had plenty of cops and everything else in town, you know what, give the Cub Scouts benefits," Ratajczak said. "But when we’ve got two [cops] on at night, , we’ve got problems. Where do I want my money --on the street or behind the desk inside there? I want it on the street."
Between health benefits -- which Cimiluca said four council members take -- and the annual $4,750 council stipends -- which he said all five council members take -- the township will pay out $111,750 to its elected officials this year.